Purpose of the report: To review the strategic approach to ensuring sufficiency and sustainability of school places. To also consider the challenges of both within the context of the White Paper Opportunity for all - Strong schools with great teachers for your child.
Denise Turner-Stewart, Cabinet Member for Education and Learning
Liz Mills, Director – Education and Lifelong Learning
Mike Singleton, Service Manager (School Place Planning)
Key points raised in the discussion:
1. The Cabinet Member introduced the report, noting that sufficiency was good in mainstream schools and that the Service was working hard to increase the number of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) places to enable children to be able to attend their local school. There was a trend of falling birth rates, producing vacancies in primary schools which was unevenly spread across Surrey. Over 50% of schools were already academies and the Schools Bill would strengthen the Council’s role with admissions.
2. A Member questioned whether the Council was pushing schools to become academies and join multi-academy trusts (MATs), which resulted in the Council having less control over such schools. The Director explained that both the White Paper and the Schools Bill stated that all schools would need to become academies by 2030, although primary legislation was not being altered to mandate this. The Council had always supported choice for schools and becoming an academy was one choice. Academisation was not viewed as a solution to the sustainability of schools on its own. However, broader support and shared leadership arrangements could be provided through a multi-academy trust. The Member enquired as to whether the Council wanted to set up academies themselves and establish an academy trust. The White Paper would allow for local authority multi-academy trusts, although, there was no expression of interest by the Council at this stage. MATs tended to be established in areas with a low prevalence of existing trusts and there were criteria set by the Department of Education (DfE). If the Council established a multi-academy trust, it would need be clear about the benefits it would provide and its purpose distinct from other trusts.
3. A Member asked about how demand versus capacity was managed in the secondary sector where the schools were predominantly academies. The Director responded that the Education Service took a collaborative approach with schools to their organisation, to ensure that there was a balance of schools that enabled everyone to thrive. It was agreed with schools when to increase or decrease capacity.
4. In response to a question on ensuring that places were filled, and requisite staff were recruited, the Director explained that in relation to the Council’s special schools, one of the criteria employed was the capacity of the school to deliver an increase of places. It was not simply about having the physical space for an increase. In terms of recruitment, there had been a difficulty in recruiting teaching assistants and the Service had been working with schools to enable them to resource them appropriately. The Director noted that there had been an overreliance on teaching assistants over time. There were not difficulties in filling school places and there was a centralised team in the Gateway to Resources team who coordinated the places. The aim was to create equal access for children countywide, which was still being worked on as some units and centres had witnessed an increase in some areas of need and a decrease in other areas.
5. A Member asked about the distribution of Ukrainian and Afghan asylum seeking children across Surrey and the associated impacts. The Service Manager explained that Afghan refugee children were placed in hotels in three areas and all of the children there had been placed in local schools. There were 37 children based in Leatherhead, 18 children based in Camberley and, 18 children based in Stanwell. The normal application process was followed. Regarding Ukrainian refugee children, 790 had arrived, of those 619 were of statutory school age. They had arrived via the Homes for Ukraine route. There were other Ukrainian children arriving from the family route. There had been 608 applications for school places this academic year. Ukrainian children were mainly concentrated in towns including Elmbridge, Surrey Heath, Woking, Mole Valley, and Waverley. There had been some pressure on places for year seven in these areas, with Farnham and Ash experiencing the most pressure for places. The Service was looking at how to resolve this for September and was monitoring it closely. The Member shared concerns around the ability to place younger children in schools that were local to them.
6. A Member queried the extent to which local development plans were taken into account when considering future school population numbers. The Service Manager assured the Committee that the Service had regular dialogue with local planning authorities. They were looking at the emerging need and would look for contributions from developers to create additional places. Although there were currently falling rolls for primary schools, in 10 to 15 years the position could change even if this period was beyond the normal forecasting period.
7. In response to a question on the impact the Schools Bill could have on Surrey, the Director explained that an all-Member briefing was being planned for early autumn on this. The Bill and White Paper provided opportunities, such as clarifying the role of local authorities as a champion of all children and increasing the Council’s role around permissions regarding elective home education. The Member also questioned whether the programme would deliver the same level of sufficiency for both SEND places and mainstream places. The Director responded that the programme included stretch targets for all children over the quality of teaching. The SEND programme modelled future demand and would be refreshed every year to account for any changes to bring a level of sufficiency for SEND places. There could be policy changes from the Green Paper to create an inclusive system in mainstream schools. The Cabinet Member added that there was flexibility built into the programme, as they were able to accelerate and shift attention to a range of different projects where needed. The Member requested a briefing to cover both the positive and negative impacts that the Bill could bring.
8. A Member asked about the impact of federalisation on rural schools and how this work linked to the Council’s Local Transport Plan. The Director responded that the plans were made at ward level, and they worked with colleagues corporately to align their work with the wider ambitions of the Council, including transport planning. The Service had been observing difficulties in some schools regarding their sustainability. This was occurring across the country. They needed to observe the realities and work through possible options. The Service Manager added that the DfE had a presumption over the closure of rural schools, whereby the impact on the local community was looked at closely prior to a closure. Children could face an educational disadvantage if there were not enough staff to offer the full curriculum, due to the small numbers of school children. The Cabinet Member emphasised that the Council valued rural and smaller schools.
9. In response to a question on considering longer term demographic patterns, the Service Manager explained that there were predictions available through the Office for National Statistics (ONS) around future birth rates. The Service looked at a ten-year period, however, the Service Manager was keen to look beyond that as local plans often went beyond a ten-year period. The ONS data was predicting the downturn of live births continuing.
10.A Member queried whether there was a gap in provision for refugees aged 17-18 years old and were unable to speak English. The Director explained that the Service was determined to ensure that this cohort did not fall through a gap in provision. The Service was updating their information, advice, and guidance for college aged Ukrainian refugees. Courses on English as a second language (ESL) were available in three locations and they wanted to make this offer more widely available. It was important to meet the needs of adults in this cohort as well. The Cabinet Member added that the Service was ensuring that career guidance and online tools were accessible.
11.A Member asked whether the Council was successfully negotiating with mainstream schools to increase the number of SEND places, in order to meet the requirements of the Safety Valve agreement. The Director explained that academies had responded well to the request and there had not been any barriers thus far. The Service would be working exclusively with academy trusts in the future if the legislation on academies gets agreed. The Cabinet Member shared that there was a voluntary gesture from academies to take a neutral approach and they had been involved in the Inclusion Roundtable.
12.A Member asked about the Council’s work around recruitment of future teachers. The Director responded that there had been a concern for some time about schools being able to ensure
sufficiency of their workforce exacerbated by the pandemic and changes of the market. The Service was trying to remove some of the barriers to teach in England, such as converting qualifications from elsewhere in the world.
13.A Member queried the level of focus on future teachers in the report, emphasising the importance of teaching assistants. The Director reassured the Committee that they recognised the value of teaching assistants, however it was about also recognising the wider range of professionals, as a teaching assistant may not always be the most appropriate professional to meet a child’s needs. The Service was looking at funding schools to provide them with greater flexibility in terms of staffing. The recruitment issues were not felt equally across all types of teaching. For example, in secondary schools, there was a lack of maths, physics, and modern foreign languages teachers. The workforce challenges were not viewed as a high risk to the programme and there were appropriate support mechanisms in place to mitigate such issues, as well as close monitoring.
14.The Member also questioned whether there was an active programme to review rural schools. The Director explained that there were no plans to close rural schools. The Service needed to acknowledge the risks for those schools, as if not, there would be a decline of standards. There had been three occasions in the last five years of reconfiguration of provision, done in partnership with the local community. The Service was proactive about sustainability of schools and held a conference last September to share the issues with these schools. Often this then manifested itself in the form of a one-to-one conversation with the school about their plan for the future. The Cabinet Member added that close monitoring of the workforce took place with the People, Performance, and Development Committee, such as recently improving the package for educational psychologists.
15.A Member queried whether there was an update regarding the capital bid to the DfE to deliver Phase four of the SEND Programme. The Director clarified that they had been awarded £8.5 million, which was less than was requested. The DfE had since opened a further free school programme, which the Service hoped to secure more funding through.
16.A Member asked whether the September 2024 timeframe was still realistic for the realisation of the capital programme and whether the 42 projects would be delivered between 2023 and 2025. The Cabinet Member was confident that the ambition to deliver by 2024 was sound and it was currently on track. There was frequent monitoring of the projects and flexibility was built into the programme for when opportunities arose. There could be pressures in the coming years, which was why the groundwork had been put in now.
Chris Townsend left the meeting at 11:27am.
17.In response to a question on the potential impact of increases in construction costs and delays of the programme, the Director explained that Land & Property officers were managing this on their behalf and had been working hard to mitigate any issues related to supply and inflation. For example, by planning ahead, having contracts in place, and securing provision and materials in advance. The Council was committed to delivering the programme. Where the need arises, they would take it to Cabinet Decision Making. The Cabinet Member added that there was flexibility in place to allow funding to be increased to make up for any inflation needs. The process was coming to the next Cabinet meeting.
The Select Committee:
1. Notes the changing education landscape including issues arising from a changing demographic and a new Schools Bill.
2. Supports the proactive approach taken to identify schools that may need a supported conversation to identify and pursue options that are right for the children in their community and in the wider area.
3. Supports the programme of investment agreed in order to achieve a sufficiency of places for children in Surrey.
4. Notes the importance of continued partnership working and the essential collaboration with providers and partners required to deliver improved outcomes for children.